Posts Tagged ‘w collins’

It seems strange to admit that I hadn’t really heard of this book, when I consider how devoted its fan base is. In my studies, I’d run into Carmilla, but Uncle Silas is apparently not much considered in this country, not even in academia, not even in the small circle of literary scholars who study Gothic. The publisher and editor, of course, make a number of claims to the book’s singularity, but please, set those aside and remember that they’re trying to sell a product. Le Fanu is heavily indebted to Ann Radcliffe, which he acknowledges through several references to The Romance of the Forest, and he follows her strategies fairly conventionally.

Maud Ruthyn is a standard Gothic heroine. Probably beautiful, but that’s not really important. Brought up in isolation by an emotionally distant father, so most of her life takes place inside her own head. She narrates the story several years after it’s finished, so our experience comes through the lens of her perception and memory. They’re likely to be flawed, what with the constant gaslighting and other terrorist tactics used on her.

But the valley of the shadow of death has its varieties of dread. The ‘horror of great darkness’ is disturbed by voices and illumed by sights. There are periods of incapacity and collapse, followed by paroxysms of active terror. Thus in my journey during those long hours I found it – agonies subsiding into lethargies, and these breaking again into frenzy. I sometimes wonder how I carried my reason safely through the ordeal.

Maud’s father is a Swedenborgian, and the occult religion provides a rationale for the isolation so Maud doesn’t question it. Unlike most Gothic novels, though, this one doesn’t use religious difference as a sign for evil. The Swede club is composed of good guys who might be a little weird and antisocial but are also essentially kind and concerned for Maud’s well-being. The evil comes from someplace else.

Volume I is largely concerned with Madame de la Rougierre, Maud’s new governess. The book was written in 1864, so of course being French makes Madame evil. She’s drunk and careless about Maud’s education; her primary concern seems to be manipulating Maud’s father. She lies and steals and at a couple of points tries to put Maud in compromising situations. Maud’s good sense pulls her through, relatively unscathed.

Along with the bad female role model, we also have the good, Monica Knollys, a cousin of Maud’s father. Cousin Monica is older, but fun and affectionate and sometimes a little shocking. She doesn’t see through the conspiracy instantly, but she knows when things aren’t right. She doesn’t have the power to fix everything, no one person does, but she has a position in society that could really help Maud understand the social class she belongs to. The sight of Monica shocks Madame out of her French accent for a couple of sentences, so while we never explore her past, I’m inclined to think her nationality is not all it’s presented to be.

In Volume II Maud goes to live with her Uncle Silas, the secret head of the conspiracy. She’s never really met him before, but she spent her entire childhood in a house with his portrait, and as an isolated teenager she thought he was pretty sexy. There was also a mystery surrounding him, which Cousin Monica finally explains to her. It’s the now-classic locked-room mystery setup, where someone was murdered in Silas’s house but no one could figure out how. The official ruling was suicide, but everyone knows he did it, except his brother. Maud’s father thinks that he’s innocent, so Maud’s residence with him is intended to prove to everyone that Silas is no murderer, even though if she were to die he would inherit a fortune that would relieve his debts, because of which he’s about to lose his house and possibly end up in prison. In Volume II he’s rather similar to Frederick Fairlie of The Woman in White – of too delicate health to abide the stimulus of other people, so he isolates himself and throws occasional tantrums. There’s a marked change in Volume III, when he becomes more of the Count Fosco type.

Silas’s daughter Milly is Maud’s companion for most of Volume II. She’s been given almost no education, and while her father frequently insults her for her ignorance, he does nothing to remove it. She runs wild, wearing dresses short enough to climb trees in, and uses the broadest country dialect she can manage (Derbyshire).

‘Will you tell – yes or no – is my cousin in the coach?’ screamed the plump young lady, stamping her stout black boot, in a momentary lull.

Yes, I was there, sure.

‘And why the puck don’t you let her out, you stupe, you?’

Despite their obvious differences (the Gothic heroine is always dressed fit for an aristocrat’s drawing room and has a natural elegance of mind that makes her a welcome addition to the highest social circles, whether her education and experience make that realistic or not), Maud and Milly become close friends very quickly. Milly gets sent to a boarding school in France for Volume III so that the conspiracy can assault Maud more easily. If Monica and Madame are contrasting mother figures, Milly is Maud’s reflection, the example of what she could have become in different circumstances.

Silas also has a son, Dudley. He’s quite as rustic as Milly, but rather more threatening because he’s a man. As her cousin, he’s entitled to more intimacy than most men, but he’s also a viable marriage partner. His role in the conspiracy is to attract and marry Maud to save his father and himself from financial ruin, but unfortunately, he has no idea how to attract a girl like her. She’s not impressed with his bragging about himself, nor is she pleased with his prowess in fistfights or hunting. I mean, if a girl doesn’t swoon over your muscles, what else can you do? A hundred and fifty years later I can shout, You can get a job and pay your own bills, but Dudley doesn’t have the training to do any mental work, and he is too proud of his position in society to do the work he is fit for. He’s one of the idle no-longer-rich, an aggressively useless sort of person.

Rounding out the conspiracy are Dickon Hawkes and his daughter Meg, because apparently Le Fanu was caught up with alliterative names. Dickon is a one-legged abusive father; he’s the real muscle in the group. Meg gets sick and Maud takes care of her, so Meg’s loyalty to the conspiracy’s intended victim makes her the weak link. She does her best to warn Maud, even if she gets beaten for it later. She’s a good kid, but unused to kindness or even civility.

Some people have called this the first locked-room mystery, but I’m disinclined to agree – Maud is no detective. She makes absolutely no effort to find clues or solve the mystery; she only discovers the truth because the conspiracy puts her in the same locked room and tries to kill her the same way. Speaking of genre conventions, the Gothic is a bit different here than it was in Radcliffe’s time. Le Fanu spends dramatically less time describing the scenery, so I guess the picturesque nature books were out of fashion seventy-five years later. In No Name, written only a couple of years earlier than Uncle Silas, Wilkie Collins describes the scenery in the different places we go to, but it seems like he’s working for a tourist commission rather than being artistically Romantic. Le Fanu’s story takes place in more private places, but Radcliffe would have been much more rhapsodical. While there’s a general air of mystery and vague threat, the real standard plot points don’t really happen until Volume III – secret messages crying for help being discovered, servants disappearing, heroine getting drugged and taken on a mysterious journey that ends in being concealed and imprisoned inside her own house, threats of bigamy and murder, that sort of thing. In Volumes I and II there are other possible interpretations of events, but in Volume III we finally make it all the way Gothic.

Maud doesn’t go into this question, but the narrative makes me wonder: Is reform possible? Do people ever really change? It depends on what you mean by change. For example, in the last six years I’ve worked through a lot of emotional stuff, and I’m happier and more confident than I was. But I think that at bottom, who I am is still the same. I am the same person I’ve always been, but my expression of my self is less clouded by fear, pain, and shame. I am freer to be who I am. But what about murderers? I think it depends on who they are and what circumstances led to the murder. For example, I think the man who killed my uncle did it as a consequence of fear and desperation, not out of hatred or anger. They didn’t even know each other. Fear and despair can be healed and managed, so that killer learned to deal with the mess of himself before the state killed him – or in other words, they reformed him and made him no longer a murderer, and then they killed him for what he had been before. The fictional murderers seem entirely different to me. Silas spends fifteen or twenty years not growing or changing, so he deals with problems the same way he did before. Two locked-room murders in the same house, in the same room, might be a little hard to explain, but he’s not concerned about that. Hawkes doesn’t change either – some people are so self-justified that they don’t see why they should. His daughter’s bruises are no one else’s concern. Maud, on the other hand, frequently refers to her own ignorance and stupidity, leading us to believe that as an adult she’s a lot wiser and less Gothic-heroine-y than she was at seventeen. Maybe the capacity for growth is a signal for moral quality. After all, Milton’s Lucifer is defined by his refusal to grow or change, so Le Fanu made his villains adopt the same quality. In real life, people are seldom so easy to define and categorize.

In some ways, you could argue that Uncle Silas is transitional, looking both backward and forward, like Disney’s Little Mermaid. There are some allegorical touches in the film that hark back to Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, but there’s also a psychological realism and a modern representation of the female protagonist that foreshadows Beauty and the Beast and Mulan. Uncle Silas relies heavily on the Radcliffe tradition, but that wave of Gothic fiction belonged to the 1790s and was pretty much finished by 1820. The locked-room mystery aspect also looks forward to Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, and the modern mystery writers. There were other Gothic heroines after 1864 (I’m thinking of Gwendolen Harleth and Mrs de Winter), but Le Fanu’s book occupies this weirdly anachronistic limbo, of not being quite one thing nor quite another. It is very enjoyable, for those of us who enjoy the Gothic fiction of previous centuries, but not as easy to categorize as scholars might desire. The strange thing is that it is so determined not to be a sensation novel, even those were so popular at the time. I think it’s better than East Lynne or Lady Audley’s Secret, but why insist so hard on not being Wilkie Collins that you end up being Radcliffe instead?

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It’s taken me five or six weeks to finish this book. It doesn’t normally take me that long to get through not quite three hundred pages, but the writing is just so dense. It’s like Berdyaev stopped to think for an hour in between sentences, so when reading I’m tempted to do the same. It’s not that I’m uninterested in his ideas, just that they come so thick and fast that the book demands more time than most novels.

This is the sort of grown-up Christianity that I would have loved eight or ten years ago, but it isn’t where I am now, and Berdyaev might take to account certain subsets of Christians, but the basic tenets of the religion are treated as self-evident, and while I love someone who loves his in-group, I’m not always convinced by his repeated assertions that ‘only Christianity’ has figured something out. I don’t see it as all that unique, doctrinally.

In his introduction, he explains a little of his theory – instead of exploring how we know things, he insists that philosophy (and thus epistemology) has to be rooted in the real world, in our lived experiences. I found this part to be exciting because it’s what I believe.

Philosophy is a part of life; spiritual experience lies at the basis of philosophical knowledge; a philosopher must be in touch with the primary source of life and derive his cognitive experience from it. Knowledge means consecration into the mystery of being and of life.

I think it’s important, when developing theories about life and the universe, to begin with what is known and experienced. It’s generally safe to trust the evidence of our five senses, so start there. Intuition is a good next step, but it’s hard to come up with sound ideas when you’re not weighing them against what you know of reality.

Because Berdyaev is a Christian, he sets this up as The Story of Man (I would say Humanity, but he really does seem to mean male humans when he talks about man and men). As such, we hit the four significant events from Christianity’s perspective: Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Judgment. And while that’s true, this is also a book about ethics, exploring the nature of good and evil. So. When Adam and Eve were created, there was no such thing as good and evil. They lived in a garden where those categories didn’t exist, or make sense. God Himself continues to live in this sort of reality, beyond that basic binary. It’s wrong to say that God is good because that distinction belongs to this world only. But then the two ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the universe was fractured. The Fall takes people out of eternity (the great and eternal now) and introduces time, as well as good and evil. The individual psyche also became divided as a result of the Fall, and we’re all still fragmentary as a result of that original sin.

The human soul is divided, an agonizing conflict between opposing elements is going on in it. The modern man has, in addition to his civilized mentality, the mind of the man of antiquity, of the child with its infantile instincts, of the madman and the neurasthenic. The conflict between the civilized mind and the archaic, infantile and pathological elements results in the wonderful complexity of the soul which scarcely lends itself to study by the old [pre-Freudian] psychological methods. Man deceives not only others but himself as well. He frequently does not know what is going on in him and wrongly interprets it both to himself and to others.

And that part I know is true. I’m seeking wholeness through self-acceptance, but it’s not a quick or easy process. I hide my internal conflicts from myself until they become too heated to ignore, and by that point I’m usually quite upset. This unity is a lifelong quest, not something that can be solved in a few months or a few years.

So then there was Moses and The Law, and what Berdyaev has to say about the ethics of law is quite in line with what most evangelical Christians say when they talk about legalism: it’s bad. Well, to be more specific, it’s only partially just because it ignores the person’s individuality and the effect of circumstances. Law is pitiless, applying the same reductive principles to every person and every situation. The ethics of law reduces us all to robots, cogs in a machine, and could easily be applied by a computer judge. We don’t have computer judges because we recognize the limitations of the ethics of law.

The ethics of law can never be personal and individual, it never penetrates into the intimate depths of personal moral life, experience and struggle. It exaggerates evil in personal life, punishing and prohibiting it, but does not attach sufficient importance to evil in the life of the world and society. It takes an optimistic view of the power of the moral law, of the freedom of will and of the punishment of the wicked, which is supposed to prove that the world is ruled by justice. The ethics of law is both very human and well adapted to human needs and standards, and extremely inhuman and pitiless towards the human personality, its individual destiny and intimate life.

For me, one of the problems with the American legal system is the emphasis on punishment rather than rehabilitation. Collectively, we seem to think that putting people in prison is the only effective way to convince them that crime is bad. We ignore the roots of the problem, which often include poverty, lack of education, and mental illness. In Foucault’s terms, we transform people into delinquents and then imprison them for the delinquency we created. Law upholds the current state of society as the best possible reality and ignores the social problems that lead to crime.

Next is the ethics of redemption, which Berdyaev claims to be the Christian view. I think rather a lot of Christians are still focused on the ethics of law, no matter what they say. It’s one of the things people hide from themselves. The ethics of redemption focuses on the idea of vicarious suffering as a substitution for the law. We don’t have to worry about legal punishments because Jesus bore all the punishment for us, provided that we feel sorry for the bad things we’ve done and try to do good. As with the ethics of law, the ethics of redemption is an incomplete system, not yet what Berdyaev thinks God was really striving for. For example:

A false interpretation of ‘good works’ leads to a complete perversion of Christianity. ‘Good works’ are regarded not as an expression of love for God and man, not as a manifestation of the gracious force which gives life to others, but as a means of salvation and justification for oneself, as a way of realizing the abstract idea of the good and receiving a reward in the future life. This is a betrayal of the Gospel revelation of love. ‘Good works’ done not for the love of others but for the salvation of one’s soul are not good at all. Where there is no love there is no goodness. Love does not require or expect any reward, it is a reward in itself, it is a ray of paradise illumining and transfiguring reality. ‘Good works’ as works of the law have nothing to do with the Gospel and the Christian revelation; they belong to the pre-Christian world. One must help others and do good works not for saving one’s soul but for love, for the union of men, for bringing their souls together in the Kingdom of God. Love for man is a value in itself, the quality of goodness is immanent in it.

In other words, focusing on redemption keeps our attention on the division in the world and in ourselves, and I still agree with Buber that being internally divided against oneself is the source of evil. To heal those divisions, we have to try to get beyond good and evil, though Berdyaev has issues with the Nietzsche uses that phrase. He quotes lots of other philosophers, most of whom he has issues with, but he’s a Russian writing in 1931, so his research is dramatically different than it would be today. Lots of Freud, Schopenhauer, Heidegger, Nietzsche, and a long list of Russians who are unfamiliar to me (though I recognize Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky).

Fortunately, there’s a third system: the ethics of creativity. In order to become more like God and get beyond good and evil, we have to do the one thing we know that God does, we have to create. I never was an ex nihilo guy, I always thought there were materials that God used to make the world. Now that I’m not so religious, I still think that creation is important, and that I’m not quite myself if I’m not regularly making things. So, higher than law and redemption is the exigency of taking the raw materials of our lives and making something beautiful.

The soul is afraid of emptiness. When there is no positive, valuable, divine content in it, it is filled with the negative, false, diabolical content. When the soul feels empty it experiences boredom, which is a truly terrible and diabolical state. Evil lust and evil passions are to a great extent generated by boredom and emptiness. It is difficult to struggle against that boredom by means of abstract goodness and virtue. The dreadful thing is that virtue at times seems deadly dull, and then there is no salvation in it. The cold, hard-set virtue devoid of creative fire is always dull and never saves. The heart must be set aglow if the dullness is to be dispelled. Dull virtue is a poor remedy against the boredom of emptiness. Dullness is the absence of creativeness. All that is not creative is dull. Goodness is deadly dull if it is not creative. No rule or norm can save us from dullness and from evil lust engendered by it. Lust is a means of escape from boredom when goodness provides no such escape. This is why it is very difficult, almost impossible, to conquer evil passions negatively, through negative asceticism and prohibitions. They can only be conquered positively, through awakening the positive and creative spiritual force opposed to them. Creative fire, divine Eros, overcomes lust and evil passions. It burns up evil, boredom and the false strivings engendered by it. The will to evil is at bottom objectless and can only be overcome by a will directed towards an object, towards the valuable and divine contents of life. Purely negative asceticism, preoccupied with evil and sinful desires and strivings, so far from enlightening the soul, intensifies its darkness. We must preach, therefore, not the morality based upon the annihilation of will but upon its enlightenment, not upon the humiliation of man and his external submission to God but upon the creative realization by man of the divine in life – of the values of truth, goodness and beauty. The ethics of creativeness can alone save the human soul from being warped by arid abstract virtue and abstract ideals transformed into rules and norms. The ideas of truth, goodness and beauty must cease to be norms and rules and become vital forces, an inner creative fire.

This is hardly an original thought with Berdyaev. I’m thinking specifically of Wilkie Collins’s opening to Hide and Seek, where an energetic little boy is forced to stop playing and do nothing on Sunday afternoons because his overbearing father only sees goodness as not doing bad things. That also connects to John Green’s An Abundance of Katherines, where the protagonist’s best friend realizes that he’s been defining his religion and therefore his identity by all the things he doesn’t do. People need something to do, something to create. It’s not that making things is good (though it does make me feel good), it’s that making things is beyond good and evil. Creativity, beauty, and love all come from a place that is beyond those distinctions, so let’s focus our attention there.

At this point, Berdyaev talks about some specific ethical problems, and this part ends up being a third of the book. I found it a bit unfocused, as he drifts from one topic to another in a stream-of-consciousness fashion. Another things that bothers me about this section is the way he elevates tragedy as the best mode of life. I don’t see tragedy as inevitable, and I don’t see it as good. I don’t see tragedy as inherently valuable. I agree with many of the things that he says here, like war creates a complicated reality when it comes to interpersonal violence. I also disagree with him on a lot of things, like homosexual love is unreal because it doesn’t result in the archetypal union of opposites that creates some mystical androgyny. As if people weren’t already inherently androgynous to some extent, or as if that were our goal in falling in love in the first place. To my ears, he writes about love like someone who’s never experienced it, even though he’d been married for quite a long time when he wrote this text. At least he destroys the ideas that marriage is indissoluble and that its purpose is procreation. I think many of his ideas are rooted in his time and place, so maybe if he were writing now he wouldn’t have such outdated ideas about women and gays. Speaking of his milieu, he is writing as an embattled Christian escaping the forced atheism of Communist Russia, so he says horrible things about atheists and communists. His progressive ideas shine brightly because of the dark background of conservatism they’re set in.

Finally, we reach the end, death and what comes after. I started reading faster at this point, maybe because I got better at reading the translation of his writing, or maybe because I didn’t have to work through so many dilemmas. Death is just a transition to another state of being, so Western culture’s erasure of death is toxic and unhelpful. Then he discusses hell, which I found really interesting. Berdyaev sees the discourse surrounding hell as reliant on our ideas about time – this life is a fractured bit of eternity, but for him it doesn’t make sense to punish someone in eternity for things done in time. Eternity isn’t infinite duration of time, it’s the absence of time. Think about that episode at the end of season six of Doctor Who, when River Song destroys time. All historical moments happen simultaneously, so everything is now. If time doesn’t progress in a line, if every moment is simultaneous, then how can it be just to punish someone in this timeless reality for something they did when reality was broken into time? Besides (and for Berdyaev this is an important point), we’re supposed to conquer evil, not build it a house and let it live next door. Good people create hell by condemning others as evil, even more than bad people create it through guilt. Believing in hell puts us back at the ethics of law, punishing people and reducing their entire complex selves to a few actions or attitudes that we find intolerable.

Berdyaev concludes with paradise. It’s not the good place where people go if they’re not in hell – it’s the place beyond good and evil that we all came from. The goal is not for good to defeat evil and cast it out, the goal is to get to a place where the distinction between good and evil is so unimportant it doesn’t exist. Again, this leads us to freedom, creativity, beauty, love, all those bohemian ideals that Shelley and Luhrmann explicitly claim.

There are two typical answers to the question of man’s vocation. One is that man is called to contemplation and the other that he is called to action. But it is a mistake to oppose contemplation to action as though they were mutually exclusive. Man is called to creative activity, he is not merely a spectator – even though it be of divine beauty. Creativeness is action. It presupposes overcoming difficulties and there is an element of labour in it. But it also includes moments of contemplation which may be called heavenly, moments of rest when difficulties and labour vanish and the self is in communion with the divine. Contemplation is the highest state, it is an end in itself and cannot be a means. But contemplation is also creativeness, spiritual activity which overcomes anxiety and difficulties.

In the traditional point of view, evil is defined as acting in opposition to God’s will, so human freedom is the source of evil. That’s why so many religions work at limiting people’s freedom. However, for Berdyaev, freedom predates good and evil. It’s part of the eternal world, the one piece of paradise that we brought with us. Freedom is not evil; it’s beyond those distinctions. As is beauty, as is the creation of beauty.

This year I’ve been making more of an effort to read nonfiction, and I have to say that I still find philosophy hard to read. Philosophers tend to use a specialized vocabulary, so I kept having to look up words like meonic and eschatological. They also use words in idiosyncratic ways, so the translator kept using the word personality when it would have made more sense to me to use personhood or individuality. The philosophers we read in English seldom wrote in English, so a good bit of the difficulty could be that of the translators. Whoever translates Michel Foucault does a fantastic job, and I think with better translators philosophy could be more approachable as text. I suppose then we wouldn’t need philosophy professors to explain it to us, which could put people out of jobs. But I’m not in favor of the elitism that surrounds philosophy, which is just one variety of nonfiction. Regardless of all that, Berdyaev has a lot of good ideas, but I’d like to see him be a little more critical of his own religion. Just because it’s yours doesn’t mean it can go unexamined, and if he had examined it a little more he might have been less prejudiced against people who are different than he is.

Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

And lo, from the very beginning, I am in love again.

There is something about this book, this woman, that makes me feel all relaxed and happy, Smollett’s ‘agreeable lassitude.’ I read the first page, the first line, and I am instantly more composed, more reconciled to the world I live in. I’ve been analyzing myself on this reading, trying to figure out why Mrs Dalloway should affect me in this way, and I think it’s her approach to life.

And of course she enjoyed life immensely. It was her nature to enjoy (though, goodness only knows, she had her reserves; it was a mere sketch, he often felt, that even he, after all these years, could make of Clarissa). Anyhow there was no bitterness in her; none of that sense of moral virtue which is so repulsive in good women. She enjoyed practically everything. If you walked with her in Hyde Park, now it was a bed of tulips, now a child in a perambulator, now some absurd little drama she made up on the spur of the moment. (Very likely she would have talked to those lovers, if she had thought them unhappy.) She had a sense of comedy that was really exquisite, but she needed people, always people, to bring it out, with the inevitable result that she frittered her time away, lunching, dining, giving these incessant parties of hers, talking nonsense, saying things she didn’t mean, blunting the edge of her mind, losing her discrimination.

Mrs Dalloway enjoys life indiscriminately. Everything and everyone pleases her. Her servants love her because she makes their work easy for them without losing the ineffable sense of glamour that she casts on everything. I find her enthusiasm compelling and irresistible, though not quite infectious. She awakens in me the desire to love the world as she does, but I’m not quite there yet. She has a gift for making things beautiful that I do not possess. She certainly has a way with people that I do not. For all I try, I do not have the manners that make strangers feel comfortable, and that deficiency makes it harder for me to make new friends and enjoy large parties as she does.

Though I suppose that I lack discrimination as well, and this is one of the reasons that I didn’t quite succeed in academia. Edmund Wilson said that the true connoisseur is the one who can distinguish between the various qualities of literature and always prefers the highest; I’m more in love with the B-List. I can read and enjoy Dickens, but I get much more pleasure from Wilkie Collins, who is not quite as reputable. Indeed, I even find my appreciation for George Eliot fading a bit, though my late-20s self thinks it sacrilege to admit the possibility. As you can see from this blog, I mix classics with zombies and sci-fi. I may be able to distinguish between the various cuts of literature, but I don’t insist on the absolute best. The apathy toward discrimination keeps me from being a true literary connoisseur/critic.

And now Clarissa escorted her Prime Minister down the room, prancing, sparkling, with the stateliness of her grey hair. She wore ear-rings, and a silver-green mermaid’s dress. Lolloping on the waves and braiding her tresses she seemed, having that gift still; to be; to exist; to sum it all up in the moment as she passed; turned, caught her scarf in some other woman’s dress, unhitched it, laughed, all with the most perfect ease and air of a creature floating in its element. But age had brushed her; even as a mermaid might behold in her glass the setting sun on some very clear evening over the waves. There was a breath of tenderness; her severity, her prudery, her woodenness were all warmed through now, and she had about her as she said good-bye to the thick gold-laced man who was doing his best, and good luck to him, to look important, an inexpressible dignity; an exquisite cordiality; as if she wished the whole world well, and must now, being on the very verge and rim of things, take her leave.

Mrs Dalloway as a mermaid here makes me think of that line from Prufrock, and to Peter Walsh she does seem a little inaccessible, uninviting. She and Peter and Sally Seton spent a lot of time together thirty years previously; Peter and Sally were both in love with her, and Clarissa and Sally even shared a kiss that Mrs Dalloway still lingers over in memory. Peter proposed, which she finds much less agreeable. And yet, she chose Richard Dalloway, who seems so much less of a person than the other two. There’s a much clearer portrait of him in The Voyage Out, chapters three through six. It was published ten years earlier, and the Dalloways serve as a type of ideal for the young protagonist. In the earlier novel they travel briefly with a group of academics and/or artists, of that type that you’re not sure if they create art, criticize it, or both. The Dalloways bring a certain elegance to the party, however much the other members may dislike it. But what I really wanted to point out from the earlier story is that Clarissa explains why she chose Richard. He was the first person she felt truly understood her. Despite their devotion, Peter and Sally don’t see to the heart of her. I think that in order to see something in other people, the same quality has to exist in ourselves. Clarissa Dalloway is essentially different from Peter Walsh and Sally Seton. A part of it is class, a larger part is patriotism and duty. It sounds a bit mad to me, but the parties, the clothes, the house in town, the frivolity, all that Peter can’t comprehend, is her responsibility to England. The upper classes have a duty to adorn the nation. The desperate poor need something to hope for, and the wealthy give them that ideal. To many people it seems like selfishness, but Mrs Dalloway sees it as service.

I read The Voyage Out three years ago, and in response I wrote, “I read to escape as most fiction readers do, but I also read for the people. I see patterns of being that I would like to emulate, models of what I could be. Some are happy, some are sad, some are lovable, some are evil, but I see the seeds of them in myself, and I see that it’s possible for me to be other than as I am. Novels serve as a mirror in which I see my own potential.” It continues to hold true. I love Mrs Dalloway because she has a grace and social talent that I don’t have but that I would like to develop. My social anxiety and social position keep me from large parties with the Prime Minister, but the comfort under observation would be a real benefit.

Mrs Dalloway is all light and beauty and elegance, but for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Her dark Other is Septimus Warren Smith, a young man still suffering from the post-traumatic stress of World War I. The officer he loved and served under died in the War, and five years later Septimus is still insane with grief.

So they returned to the most exalted of mankind; the criminal who faced his judges; the victim exposed on the heights; the fugitive; the drowned sailor; the poet of the immortal ode; the Lord who had gone from life to death; to Septimus Warren Smith, who sat in the arm-chair under the skylight staring at a photograph of Lady Bradshaw in Court dress, muttering messages about beauty.

Paranoia, hallucinations, delusions of grandeur . . . It’s bad. Many of his symptoms were Woolf’s own, such as the belief that the birds were giving him messages in Greek, which he does not speak. The thing that touches me about the portrayal is not so much him as his wife. He married Lucrezia in Milan before he came back from the war, and she does her best to take care of him. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be afraid of going crazy, and then inventing a character who loves you and takes perfect care of you. And then acknowledging that it isn’t enough. Rezia can’t save him. The doctor comes again, but he just can’t take it any more and escapes.

Even though they never meet, Mrs Dalloway hears about what happened and she understands. She knows that the pressure of doctors could drive someone to suicide, and she doesn’t judge him for it. She knows, and feels sympathy. Between The Voyage Out and Mrs Dalloway, there was the influenza epidemic, and Clarissa fell deathly ill. She recovered, but with a fresh awareness of death, which follows her throughout the day of this story. Facing the reality of her death takes some of her sweetness away. There is strong rage hiding under the white or red roses and mermaid gowns. Most people see only the surface; Peter and Sally see only the depths; but she is both. Mrs Dalloway is a real human being, which means she has rivals and hatreds and friends and loves and everything that makes a life. She sees all of life, whether good or evil, and values it all. She loves life so much that she loves even the pain. She accepts herself completely.

Last week, when I went back to North Carolina, I was baffled by these last six months. How could I have imagined I could be content in the Midwest, when so much of what I love is hundreds of miles away? My children, the friends who helped me through my divorce and coming-out, so much of what really matters to me, so much of what I consider my life is there. I want to go home. And when I think of Mrs Dalloway, I’ve been realizing that I don’t have faith in myself. I don’t think that I will be able to make it there. The him that I’m with now I think can really help me reconcile myself with my family, as well as give me the courage to go after what I really want in life, even if it’s without him. He can show me the way, but I have to do the work myself. I need to continue to decide that my happiness is worth working toward. That could involve a new life, a new career, all kinds of scary things. But if it gets me home, that will be worth it. I just can’t bear the thought of dying here.

 

This is the book I really intended to be reading this week. It’s short, but moves slowly. Philosophers tend to write very densely. I imagine that they spend a lot of time thinking and talking about ideas but little time thinking about how to express them clearly. This essay explains concepts at the end that it discusses at the beginning as if the reader already understands them; it’s all very recursive. This is characteristic of academic writing in some countries, but not in mine. When academics from Spanish-speaking countries, for example, move here, they have to completely re-learn how to write an essay.

I was very interested in Derrida back in undergrad; fourteen years ago, I read “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” over and over again until I thought I understood it. It takes a very specific mindset to understand Derrida, and I’m not sure if I had it this week. This essay was originally part of a collection (L’Ethique du don: Jacques Derrida et la pensée du don); it feels a bit like being in a class taught by Derrida, but in my case I didn’t do any of the advance reading. It reflects on and interprets an essay by Jan Patočka, but also includes references to Levinas, Heidegger, Nietzsche, the Bible, and Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener.” The Bible and the Melville I get, but the others are sort of like Berlin. I’ve heard a lot about it, I’ve seen it in films and news stories, but I’ve never actually been there. I don’t know it well enough to discuss it. I’d like to, but not yet. As a linguistic exercise, this essay is a bit dizzying. An English translation of a French essay that interprets a Czech essay, using philosophy written in German and applying it to a story written in Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek, largely translated into Latin.

Let’s see if I can get to the heart of this. In the beginning, there was orgiastic mystery. People had transcendent experiences that led them to imagine divinity, and in the grip of these experiences they did strange things. Orgiastic mystery, what I usually refer to as mysticism, has never gone away. When Plato came along, he incorporated this type of mystery into his philosophy. He said that people had these experiences to point them (and everyone else) toward the Good. He dressed the mystical experience in abstractions to make it more accessible to the layperson, to introduce an ethical component to the divine madness. He rejected the mad elements of it, and incorporated the rest. It’s like when there’s an artist who advocates restructuring society; Americans will celebrate the shit out of her, ignore the really revolutionary elements of her art and create a sanitized version they can teach to fifth-graders in a unit on celebrating our individuality. It’s like reading Ginsberg with ninth-graders in a public school.

And then there was Christianity, which repressed and sort of covered over the mysticism that preceded it. Plato’s abstract Good became incarnated as God. An ethical response was replaced with a personal relationship. And, this personal relationship, this God, is all based on the idea of death as a gift, a specific death given with a specific purpose, one man dying for all mankind. Which is odd and sort of bollocks.

Every one of us dies. Every one of us will die. There is no escape from that. Someone can give their death to prolong our life, but no one can take our death from us. We will all experience death, and all in our own specific way. In Sense and Sensibility, people are placeholders for social roles and positions. When Edward’s inheritance is settled irrevocably on his brother, his fiancée drops him for Robert immediately. Edward Ferrars is not a man, he’s a destiny. Just as the three pairs of sisters are all pretty much the same, Elinor and Marianne, Anne and Lucy, Lady Middleton and Mrs Palmer, it’s a pattern that repeats, like wallpaper. In real life, we are all unique and irreplaceable, because our experience of death will be utterly unique. Death is what makes us who we are. It’s what we have to offer the world.

We are responsible for our actions. When our actions are bad, we deserve the bad consequences. According to Christians, Jesus gave his death as a gift to cancel the consequences of our bad actions. As the Holy Other, Jesus exists in a hierarchical binary relationship to humanity. He is utterly other, and always above us. Jesus’s sacrifice doesn’t stop us from dying, our deaths being an integral part of our identity; it stops us from suffering afterward. It relieves us from responsibility. This is what that study realized, when they gave kids a test to see how well they shared – atheists behave more ethically than religious people because they have no mediator with their own consciences.

Derrida (and possibly the others as well) uses the example of Abraham sacrificing Isaac, though Ibrahim’s sacrifice of Ismail would work just as well. So, this angel tells the father to kill his son. He keeps this exchange secret, preserving the integrity of the orgiastic experience, being responsible toward God while committing a completely unethical act. Religion demands this sacrifice of all its adherents; God tells people to act in strange, unethical ways, ways that harm or at least confuse the people around them. They have a secret responsibility that supersedes their responsibility to their families and society, what Robinson Crusoe (and Gabriel Betteredge) called the Secret Dictate. Here in the United States, Jesus’s gift gives people the right to hate and persecute those who are different to themselves. Look at the resistance to gay marriage and abortion rights; look at the new laws determining which bathroom transgender people can use. I’d feel much less comfortable urinating in the same room as a person in a dress than a person in a suit and tie, regardless of who has a penis and who doesn’t. But American Christians have a habit of legislating their discomfort. Fuck ethics, we have a Secret Dictate, a responsibility to God to ignore the rights of fellow human beings. Now, I’m generalizing, I know that there are good Christians out there, but the reactionary laws still pass, and Donald Trump has secured the conservative party’s nomination, so the good Christians are either not numerous or not vocal enough. I hadn’t thought of it this way before, but I think Derrida’s right: in the wrong hands, religion destroys a sense of ethical responsibility. And most hands are the wrong ones.

Which leads us to the end, tout autre est tout autre. It looks like nothing, Everything else is everything else, but that’s not what he means. Everyone else is wholly Other. Yes, God is completely different than humanity (Wholly/Holy Other), but every human is completely different from every other human. God and other people are equally alien to us. Which means that that secret responsibility to God, understood properly, is also a secret responsibility to every other person. Derrida tends to see the world in terms of hierarchized binaries, which he then smashes apart or “deconstructs.” Self and Other is one of these binaries, and our natural impulse is to favor Self. But religion teaches us to value the Other above the Self, but every Other occupies the same role in the binary, so it doesn’t matter which specific one I’m thinking of, a two-thousand-year-dead Jewish carpenter, my ex-wife, or the new boyfriend I’ve been texting all week. Every other is the same as every other, Holy or Profane.

We should stop thinking about God as someone, over there, way up there, transcendent, and, what is more – into the bargain, precisely – capable, more than any satellite orbiting in space, of seeing into the most secret of the most interior places. It is perhaps necessary, if we are to follow the traditional Judeo-Christiano-Islamic injunction, but also at the risk of turning against that tradition, to think of God and of the name of God without such idolatrous stereotyping or representation. Then we might say: God is the name of the possibility I have of keeping a secret that is visible from the interior but not from the exterior. Once such a structure of conscience exists, of being-with-oneself, of speaking, that is, of producing invisible sense, once I have within me, thanks to the invisible word as such, a witness that others cannot see, and who is therefore at the same time other than me and more intimate with me than myself, once I can have a secret relationship with myself and not tell everything, once there is secrecy and secret witnessing within me, then what I call God exists, (there is) what I call God in me, (it happens that) I call myself God – a phrase that is difficult to distinguish from “God calls me,” for it is on that condition that I can call myself or that I am called in secret. God is in me, he is the absolute “me” or “self,” he is that structure of invisible interiority that is called, in Kierkegaard’s sense, subjectivity.

God sees without being seen, holds us from the inside, in secret, and makes us responsible for keeping that secret. Or in other words, God is a voice in our heads; creating a relationship with the divine is an activity of self-revelation, self-approbation, self-discovery. As in Yeats’s poem, we create God in our own image because our gods are in us all along. Walking with God is a way of loving and accepting oneself.

When I was at school, I thought of these two parts of my life as separate, the conservative religious “good boy” in one box and the liberal intellectual free-thinking academic in another. And here Derrida has deconstructed my personal internal binary, explained what I had kept secret, even from myself.

In the end, Derrida talks about what I had previously thought, religion-wise, only he has a much stronger background in philosophy than I do. Which is: Believing in God doesn’t mean shit if you can’t see God in the people around you, or in yourself. There are Bible verses I could use to back that up, but if you think I’m right you don’t need them, and if you think I’m wrong they won’t convince you.

So. Death as a gift. There are many people, including myself, who have considered Death as a friend to be welcomed, one we become impatient to see. To us, the suicides, I say: consider Death not as a person but as a gift. Give yours to someone who really deserves it, in a situation where the loss of you will have meaning. Most suicides are just a creation of an absence. Find a way to make yours matter. Your death makes you unique and irreplaceable; don’t waste it. Even if you don’t value your life, treat your death with enough respect to make it special. As I follow this vein of thinking, I begin to put more value into my life. Making a good death means living a good life. So let’s do that, shall we?

So, the morning after I finished the last book, I was rooting through the boxes of books in the living room, looking for whatever would come next, and I thought, “Oh yeah, I’ve been thinking of Melmoth lately,” so I pulled it out. I wasn’t thirty pages into it before I was thinking, “Really, OccMan? Melmoth? Really? With the depressed mood you’ve been in lately, you’re going to read fucking Melmoth?” It ended up not being as depressing as I remember, and I’m actually noticeably happier than I was two weeks ago, so Melmoth was a win.

Melmoth the Wanderer marks a turning point in Gothic literature. There was a strong wave starting with Walpole in 1764 that reached its crest with Ann Radcliffe in the 1790s, waning toward the parody Northanger Abbey and what may be the first science fiction novel, Frankenstein, both of 1818. In 1820, Melmoth is sort of the last of this wave. The writer of the foreword, though, seems to think it could also be a bridge to the next type of Gothic, the sensation novels of the 1850s-70s, with Mrs Gaskell and Mr Collins in the thick of it, and Dickens and Brontë representing the more respectable crowd. It’s harder to connect Maturin to Dickens, in my opinion, because of the time period. People still read novels from nearly every year from 1790 to 1820 (and when I say people I mean I do), but there’s a big gap in British fiction from Melmoth in 1820 to The Pickwick Papers in 1836. I read the first chapter of an LEL novel from I think 1824, but my professor didn’t think the book worth following up on, and if a Romanticist/Victorianist who teaches graduate courses isn’t into it, and it’s nearly impossible to find, I really think it wouldn’t repay the effort. I mean, there are also some Scott novels, but I really think that the best thing to come out of Sir Walter Scott is the Donizetti opera. Aside from the time, I also think Maturin fits better with the conventions of Radcliffe than those of Collins. Most of the novel takes place in Spain, and about half of it in the seventeenth century, and it was Radcliffe’s crew who distanced the Gothic from themselves in time and place. The Victorians bring the horror right up close to themselves.

The premise. Melmoth is a type of the Wandering Jew, condemned to wander the earth for an unnaturally long period of time, serving as a representative of ultimate evil on the earth. He’s kind of like Cain, one of the heroes of the Romantic poets. Like Victor Frankenstein, Melmoth wants to know the secrets of nature, to penetrate beyond the human limits of knowledge. So he makes a deal, whereby he can pass through any wall or door and travel at incredible speeds, in order to learn more than anyone ever has, but with the understanding that when he dies, after one hundred fifty years, he’s going to suffer in hell for eternity. The only loophole is, that if he can find someone who will take his place – someone so desperate to escape that he will risk his soul – he can recover his salvation. But, this condition is unutterable, literally. People who try to denounce him drop dead on the spot. It can only be revealed in the safety of the confessional. He spends a lot of time hanging out in Spain, perhaps because of the intensity of the Inquisition there.

The structure. This novel is a whole mess of interpolated stories. Most novels with this type of structure lend an air of reality by being terribly interested in verisimilitude, creating a logical reason for the stories to be gathered as they are. Not Maturin. Someone reads a scroll in the underground library of a hundred-year-old Spanish Jew, and we have to accept it as realistic, even though there’s no character who could know all the story relates (Maturin favors third-person omniscient narration). The frame story is about John Melmoth, a young man who was raised in comparative poverty with the expectation of inheriting a fortune from a miserly eccentric uncle. The uncle dies, warning Young Melmoth about his ancestor. Melmoth then finds a half-legible manuscript about someone who met the Wanderer after being wrongfully imprisoned in an insane asylum. The story gets him all worried and excited, and (coincidentally) a few nights later a ship crashes on the coast, with the survivor being another of the Wanderer’s prospects. He tells his story, and with its interpolations, it takes up the rest of the book.

The Tale of the Spaniard. Monçada tells your classic Radcliffean Gothic tale: raised in obscurity, he discovers that he’s an illegitimate son of the nobility. Manipulated by the clergy, he’s forced to join a Madrid monastery and take vows. He tries to escape, but in the end he gets sent to the Inquisition, and no one escapes the Spanish Inquisition. Except him. He takes shelter with a Jew, who sets him to copying manuscripts about Melmoth. The most significant of these manuscripts occupies nearly half the book:

The Tale of the Indian(s). Not really about Indians. Immalee is a white girl shipwrecked on an island off the coast of India in the late seventeenth century. The Indians take her for the goddess of love and leave her offerings. Somehow she survives in almost total isolation until she’s a beautiful teenager, when Melmoth meets her. They discuss life and philosophy and fall in love. Melmoth leaves her, but meets her again three years later after she’s been rescued and returned to her parents in Spain. The child of nature, she doesn’t take well to Catholicism and the society it has produced. She elopes with Melmoth and they marry, but secretly. Her father brings her someone to marry, but she’s so pregnant she’s about to drop Melmoth’s baby any second. The secret comes out and she gets sent to the Inquisition (Seville this time), where eventually she and her child die. The night before her ill-fated marriage, though, Melmoth met with her father and told him a couple of stories about himself, but Aliaga doesn’t profit by the knowledge.

The Tale of Guzman’s Family. Guzman was this really rich guy whose sister ran off to Germany and married a heretic Protestant. He cut her off with a shilling, so to speak, but later in life regrets his decision and invites her to come back to Spain and live under his protection. He pays for an education for the children and all their household expenses, but under the influence of the priests he refuses to see them. When Guzman dies, everything goes to the Church instead of to the Walbergs. They are brought to the very brink of destitution before the correct will is located and they all live happily ever after.

The Tale of the Lovers. Some of the politics of mid-seventeenth century England can be difficult to follow, but the Mortimers were a royalist family even when that loyalty put their lives and livelihoods in danger. Three cousins live together there for a while; if the boy marries one, he gets the entire family fortune. If he marries the other, he gets enough to live comfortably on for his life. Of course he loves the one who would leave him not filthy rich, but he’s tricked into thinking he can’t marry her, so he leaves her at the altar and marries the other one after a suitable period. Then the wife dies and he goes crazy, so the lover gets to take care of him for the rest of their lives after all.

After Monçada finishes The Tale of the Indian, it seems like Maturin suddenly realized how long his book was getting, and he finishes it in ten pages, with one last interpolated story, The Wanderer’s Dream, in which Melmoth dreams of himself in hell.

So much for plot. Like most of the Gothic novels of the 1790s, Melmoth is violently anti-Catholic. All that “trapped in a convent” and “imprisoned in the Inquisition” stuff may have some basis in reality, but the writers of the time let their imaginations run riot because it sells more books. These authors were successful because people hated Catholics so much back then (cf Dickens, Barnaby Rudge). Good Gothic relies on fears and prejudices shared by the audience, and Catholics freaked them out. It’s why so many films with homosexual characters have been Gothic, like Deathtrap (gay murderers, 1980s) or Rebecca (Damn, Mrs Danvers is creepy, and in love with Rebecca, 1940).  It’s also why a film like Grand Piano doesn’t become a big success. Even though it stars John Cusack and Elijah Wood, no one’s heard of it because it’s a thriller that takes place during a concert of classical music. Who beside music students would freak out at the words, “Play one wrong note and you die”? Having been a music student, I get it, but being one no longer, I also get how it’s so absurd that you want to laugh.

Aside from the plot devices, Maturin also goes on explicit tirades about religion and its place in culture and people’s lives. These rants are sometimes voiced by Melmoth – being ancient, learned, and evil, he can relate all the bitterness that comes from devoting your life to God and living it among human beings (I did mention that Maturin is a priest, right?). Immalee, being the child of nature, can also be the author’s mouthpiece, advocating the supposedly natural religion of his version of Protestantism, so when the two of them discuss religion, it’s like the sermon-writer possesses the novelist’s hand for a bit.

‘Then you do not feel your new existence in this Christian land so likely to surfeit you with delight as you once thought? For shame, Immalee – shame on your ingratitude and caprice! Do you remember when from your Indian isle you caught a glimpse of the Christian worship, and were entranced at the sight?’ – ‘I remember all that ever passed in that isle. My life formerly was all anticipation, – now it is all retrospection. The life of the happy is all hopes, – that of the unfortunate all memory. Yes, I remember catching a glimpse of that religion so beautiful and pure; and when they brought me to a Christian land, I thought I should have found them all Christians.’ – ‘And what did you find them, then, Immalee?’ – ‘Only Catholics.’

As the third-person narrator of the frame story, Maturin also preaches in his own voice:

Vice is always nearly on an average: The only difference in life worth tracing, is that of manners, and there we have manifestly the advantage of our ancestors. Hypocrisy is said to be the homage that vice pays to virtue, – decorum is the outward expression of that homage; and if this be so, we must acknowledge that vice has latterly grown very humble indeed.

The thing is, that when I see someone so manifestly ethnocentric that he portrays everyone other than himself as evil, I want him to be wrong all the time. There are a number of really good Catholic people, and as a body the Catholics do a lot to relieve suffering. But when Maturin talks about ideas of religion instead of groups, he almost always gets it spot on:

Don Francisco crossed himself repeatedly, and devoutly disavowed his ever having been an agent of the enemy of man. ‘Will you dare to say so?’ said his singular visitor, not raising his voice as the insolence of the question seemed to require, but depressing it to the lowest whisper as he drew his seat nearer his astonished companion – ‘Will you dare to say so? – Have you never erred? – Have you never felt one impure sensation? – Have you never indulged a transient feeling of hatred, or malice, or revenge? – Have you never forgot to do the good you ought to do, – or remembered to do the evil you ought not to have done? – Have you never in trade overreached a dealer, or banquetted on the spoils of your starving debtor? – Have you never, as you went to your daily devotions, cursed from your heart the wanderings of your heretical brethren, – and while you dipped your fingers in the holy water, hoped that every drop that touched your pores, would be visited on them in drops of brimstone and sulphur? – Have you never, as you beheld the famished, illiterate, degraded populace of your country, exulted in the wretched and temporary superiority your wealth has given you, – and felt that the wheels of your carriage would not roll less smoothly if the way was paved with the heads of your countrymen? Orthodox Catholic – old Christian – as you boast yourself to be, – is not this true? – and dare you say you have not been an agent of Satan? I tell you, whenever you indulge one brutal passion, one sordid desire, one impure imagination – whenever you uttered one word that wrung the heart, or embittered the spirit of your fellow-creature – whenever you made that hour pass in pain to whose flight you might have lent wings of down – whenever you have seen the tear, which your hand might have wiped away, fall uncaught, or forced it from an eye which would have smiled on you in light had you permitted it – whenever you have done this, you have been ten times more an agent of the enemy of man than all the wretches whom terror, enfeebled nerves, or visionary credulity, has forced into the confession of an incredible compact with the author of evil, and whose confession has consigned them to flames much more substantial than those the imagination of their persecutors pictured them doomed to for an eternity of suffering! Enemy of mankind!’ the speaker continued, – ‘Alas! how absurdly is that title bestowed on the great angelic chief, – the morning star fallen from its sphere! What enemy has man so deadly as himself? If he would ask on whom he should bestow that title aright, let him smite his bosom, and his heart will answer, – Bestow it here!’

I had a difficult experience this Sunday. It was All Saints’ Day, and during part of the service they showed a slide show of pictures of all the people in the congregation who have died in the past year. It’s a bit overwhelming to me, how many of the gay community die young. Then in the sermon the pastor described being a young and hot-headed priest during the AIDS crisis, ministering in hospitals to people who couldn’t get medical staff to enter their rooms. I cried and cried and cried, or at least, I did the silent sobbing that serves the function of crying when you can’t bring out a tear in public. Leaving the service, I got in line to see the priest and hugged him long enough to make us both uncomfortable. Describing this to a friend, he said that it’s really strange how strongly this affected me since I didn’t know anyone involved back then (During the 1980s, I was a kid in middle-of-nowhere North Carolina; gay people lived in New York and San Francisco and decent people didn’t go to those cities). I wonder if my faith in God is coming back. That thought troubles me, because with my family history of mental illness, I just don’t trust myself. I used to seek mystical experiences, but now I think they might have been “the very coinage of your brain: This bodily creation ecstasy is very cunning in” (Yes, I’m still quoting Hamlet all the time. Sorry if that’s a problem.) I’m not sure what’s a vision and what’s a hallucination, what is inspiration and what is insanity. I mean, I write a blog that blends book reviews with autobiography; I’ve never been good at distinguishing between fiction and reality. I like having the community that faith provides, and I generally like people who have faith, but I don’t want to become unstable again. Not that I’m exactly a paragon of mental health, but I’ve been a lot worse than I am now.

I miss having confidence in my own perceptions. I miss the certainty of faith. I had to cut my mind in half back then, like Solomon’s baby, because my faith couldn’t stand up to the scrutiny of my critical thinking, but that life did have its good points. I want to find something I can believe in wholly, as a complete person. I don’t want to live at war with myself, cleaving good from bad and setting them against each other. I want to live in peace with myself, with others, with the world around me, and if that includes a God, I want peace with him too. Despite his hatred of Catholicism, Islam, and paganism, Maturin seems to favor the peaceful lifestyle as well. The problems he has with other faiths is that he sees them as manipulating and torturing their practitioners; Protestantism is good at that too, he just doesn’t use that as his sole definition of his own community.

Despite my initial doubts, Melmoth has been a good experience. I can take quite a bit of religion when it’s sheltered inside a good story, and while this novel isn’t perfect, it is quite good. It’s not very commonly available, though, so if you can find it, take advantage of it.

Sometimes it’s not such a good idea to read a book that mirrors your own mental state.

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Antonina is a novel of ruin and despair, and I’ve had enough of those in the last few months. Reading more of them was probably not the best thing for me, but it’s too late now.

My financial state is not good. When I moved down here, my old landlord assured me that it would be simple to find someone to sublease my apartment because at the beginning of the semester, students were looking for places to live. However, none of them want my old place. It looks like I’m going to be paying rent in Illinois through the end of the lease in January. So, I get two paychecks a month, one goes to the two rents and the other goes to my child support. I pay my utilities on credit, and for food, I rely on the kindness of strangers. This system is not sustainable. I applied for a retail position, and they asked me to call their toll-free number for a phone interview, but I’ve been ringing the number four times a day for over a week now and it’s always busy. A friend sent me some money last month, and it’s enough to keep me limping along for another month or two, which is good, but not a long-term solution. I talked to my mom last night, and she mentioned she might send me some food. Great, but it came with the advice that I talk out loud to her imaginary friend in order to deal with my emotional problems.

What emotional problems, you ask? I’ll tell you. I moved to Texas two months ago in an effort to escape the harsh Midwestern winter and a growing sexual harassment problem at work. In June I was already depressed at the thought of driving through snow the coming January. As for the other situation, I wanted to be supportive when he told me he was bi and that it was this big secret, but when he started texting me that he was stroking it and thinking of me, I didn’t know how to say, “Telling me you’re attracted to men is cool, but giving me the details of your private time is too much. Since I work for you, this style of communication is really inappropriate. Since you were involved in my hiring process, I now feel like you hired me primarily because you wanted to work your way toward physical intimacy with me instead of because you valued my mind or skills. When you say these things, I feel cheap and dirty, and I want you to stop.”

So I was already struggling with feeling worthless, and then I get down here and I feel cut off from all the communities I try to join. In rural Texas, we don’t have gay communities, just a few guys hanging out in their isolated closets. Instead, we have Christian communities. I’ve tried joining the local branch of my mom’s church, and I work at a Christian school, but I just feel more and more like a closet atheist. I go through the motions, I know the right vocabulary and the right names to drop, but my heart isn’t in it. I feel like I have to hide something that is basic to my understanding of my own identity, but instead of my sexual attraction it’s now my unbelief. And, as one of my favorite gay-themed movies reminds me, “Being in the closet is being fucked up.”

I’m also teaching younger students, and I hate it. I do great with college students, I’m okay with high school kids (upper-classmen are noticeably better), but middle school and elementary kids? No. Just, no. I now have students who range from fifth grade to twelfth, so some parts of the day are great and other parts of the day I just want to shout profanities. If that one kid says “I don’t get it” while smiling vacantly at me one more time, I swear I’m going to forget that I’m a pacifist. I’ve never taught lower than eleventh grade before, so I feel really inadequate with most of my students. I’m seeing improvement, and so are their other teachers, but I go home most days exhausted and frustrated. It’s worse on the days that we have chapel, because the youth pastor’s definition of evil seems to be “whatever makes him feel uncomfortable,” which includes just about anyone who isn’t cis-gendered upper-middle-class Evangelical. Fortunately, the topic of sexuality hasn’t come up yet, but I expect it any day. The type of nondenominational conservative Christianity that is prevalent at school makes me feel like I’m teaching in a French farmyard filled with unexploded mines. Every day that the mines don’t detonate, I get closer to forgetting that they’re there, and eventually I’ll get careless and blow everything up.

One of my friends from back home has a good friend in Dallas, so he suggested we meet up at this guy’s church, where he has a reasonably-sized group of gay friends who worship and then go out for lunch together. I’m not uber-hopeful, since it’s another church community like the two I already don’t feel comfortable with, but it’s a gay community, so it can’t be all bad. Almost immediately after the suggestion, my car broke down in the middle of the town square. Since it’s from a European automaker, it had to get hauled around three counties before I could find someone who could work on it. I got it back the following Friday, and Sunday I started off on the way to Dallas, but then it overheated up into the danger zone, so I found a coolant leak and went back home instead. Monday I got it back to the mechanic’s before work, then picked it up again Tuesday evening. It’s given me a good two and a half days without worrying symptoms, so I may finally get into the city this weekend.

Two trips to the mechanic? I thought you didn’t have any extra money lying around! I don’t. I had to borrow twelve hundred dollars from the Christians I work for, because I’m almost at the end of my credit and no sane person or institution is going to lend me anything until I get some of these bills paid off. So, not only do I not want to continue here next school year, I feel guilty for it because they’ve been working so hard to build a mutual sense of loyalty with me. Oh, and the Check Engine light is back on, so my car won’t pass inspection in December unless I take it back to the mechanic who charges $120 just to plug it into the diagnostic computer.

All of this has been revealing to me just how closely my sense of self-worth is tied to my sense of independence. I feel independent and good about myself when I make enough money to pay my bills and can travel around to do the things I like. When my car breaks down, or I have to borrow money I can’t pay back immediately, I get depressed. I’m trying to redirect thoughts of self-harm, but I’m not always successful. I am still eating, so things aren’t as bad as they have been. I also know that since I’m not homeless things aren’t as bad as they have been, or as bad as they are for other people. I’m not saying my life is the worst ever, just that I have financial obligations that I can’t see myself meeting, and it tempts me to do bad things.

Anyway, on to Wilkie Collins. This, his first published novel, is set during the first siege of the fall of Rome. If that sounds overly specific and a little pretentious, it is. Collins’s early style is so pretentious that it’s a little hard to read.

CHAPTER 3: ROME

The perusal of the title to this chapter will, we fear, excite emotions of apprehension, rather than of curiosity, in the breasts of experienced readers. They will doubtless imagine that it is portentous of long rhapsodies on those wonders of antiquity, the description of which has long become absolutely nauseous to them by incessant iteration. They will foresee wailings over the Palace of the Caesars, and meditations among the arches of the Colosseum, loading a long series of weary paragraphs to the very chapter’s end; and, considerately anxious to spare their attention a task from which it recoils, they will unanimously hurry past the dreaded desert of conventional reflection, to alight on the first oasis that may present itself, whether it be formed by a new division of the story, or suddenly indicated by the appearance of a dialogue. Animated, therefore, by apprehensions such as these, we hasten to assure them that in no instance will the localities of our story trench upon the limits of the well-worn Forum, or mount the arches of the exhausted Colosseum. It is with beings, and not the buildings of old Rome, that their attention is to be occupied. We desire to present them with a picture of the inmost emotions of the times — of the living, breathing actions and passions of the people of the doomed Empire. Antiquarian topography and classical architecture we leave to abler pens, and resign to other readers.

Oh, for a red pen back in 1850! I could have cut out at least a third of this novel just by simplifying the language (while maintaining the Victorian long sentences and Latinate vocabulary) and cutting out all the direct addresses to the reader. I also would have gotten rid of the ethnocentrism. I shouldn’t have been surprised by it; I ran across his first written unpublished novel ten years ago and couldn’t get through it because of all the rampant prejudice. Don’t write a heroine who couldn’t exist in the foreign culture you’re writing about, like an inexplicably chaste Polynesian. Victorian Englishwomen are Victorian Englishwomen, whether you’ve written them in classical Rome or in the south Pacific. I guess this means that Wilkie Collins started writing fan fic before that was even a thing, though he was a bit more self-aware about writing in order to comfort his audience about the acceptability/respectability of their lifestyles.

Could he then have seen the faintest vision of the destiny that future ages had in store for the posterity of the race that now suffered throughout civilised Europe, like him — could he have imagined how, in after years, the ‘middle class’, despised in his day, was to rise to privilege and power; to hold in its just hands the balance of the prosperity of nations; to crush oppression and regulate rule; to soar in its mighty flight above thrones and principalities, and rank and riches, apparently obedient, but really commanding; — could he but have foreboded this, what a light must have burst upon his gloom, what a hope must have soothed him in his despair!

So, some good things. As in reading the earlier works of Ursula Le Guin, in Antonia we see the themes that help us to love Collins’s more mature works: overzealous Christians, sympathetic villainesses, handsome yet unintelligent men, dandies whose apparent uselessness belies their actual power, altered mental states (insanity through trauma and malnourishment this time), physical deformity and the strange cause/effect relationship that has on emotional states, unlikely medical scenarios (if you get stabbed through the neck in classical Rome, you’re going to die, I don’t care how much the novelist wants to keep you alive), the wild coincidences necessary to the sensational plot, and endings that don’t rely on the death or marriage of the female protagonist.

So yes, this book is a little obnoxious, but don’t judge the author on this one. He’s famous for the novels he wrote ten years later, The Woman in White and The Moonstone especially – once he gets away from historical romance and gets into mystery writing, things get a lot better. And don’t judge me based on my complaints about how my life isn’t the way I want it to be and I don’t know how to make it better – once I’ve written it all out and published it online, my attitude tends to improve dramatically.

I don’t know how long ago it was that I bought this book. It was an impulse buy, because I had read another of the author’s books and remembered it as being well written. Afterward, though, as I remembered The Time Traveler’s Wife more specifically, I couldn’t bring myself to read it. TTW is a soul-crushing book. Niffenegger introduces you to some nice, lovely people, gives you half a book to fall completely in love, and then she spends the second half destroying them. Everything Henry and Claire love is taken from them, and then they die.

Fortunately, Her Fearful Symmetry doesn’t follow the same trajectory. It’s essentially a Victorian ghost story, but up to date. Think back to Sense and Sensibility and Bleak House – you know how social roles are more important than individual identity? How people are easily replaced by others, whether because there’s a physical resemblance or a role in the family? Niffenegger makes that even more intense by using twins. Not secret hidden twins ala Little Dorrit, these are the upfront, can never be separated twins. The author even blames their virginity at 21 on the twinness:

And they would each have to pick different guys, and these guys, these potential boyfriends, would want to spend time alone with one or the other; they would want to be the important person in Julia or Valentina’s life. Each boyfriend would be a crowbar, and soon there would be a gap; there would be hours in the day when Julia wouldn’t even know where Valentina was, or what she was doing, and Valentina would turn to tell Julia something and instead there would be the boyfriend, waiting to hear what she was about to say although only Julia would have understood it.

Of course, this comes directly after Valentina meets Robert and Julia meets Martin. Not that they’re very skilled in starting relationships.

She was used to the profound intimacy of her life with Julia, and she did not know that a cloud of hope and wild illusion is required to begin a relationship. Valentina was like the veteran of a long marriage who has forgotten how to flirt.

It seems a bit odd to me that the author insists that the twins can’t have sex with each other. Women have sex in pairs without men all the time. The comment seems outdated and inaccurate, but it’s just a little speed bump. I may only think so because I’m not a lesbian; I don’t get angry with Mary Wollstonecraft for saying that male homosexuality doesn’t exist, but she was writing more than two hundred years ago, so that’s a pretty good excuse.

I am an expert in building a cloud of hope and wild illusion; beginning a relationship, finding someone suitable to join me in a relationship, not so much. I don’t have a twin to blame, just my own awkwardness and lack of experience. But I know what Robert means when he grieves:

Robert was struck once again by the finality of it all, summed up and presented to him as the silence in the little room behind him. I have things to tell you. Are you listening? He had never realised, while Elspeth was alive, the extent to which a thing had not completely happened until he told her about it.

After the ex and I split, everyone tends to assume that, because I’m gay, I don’t really care about the breakup. They’re wrong. She left a gap in my existence that I have not grown to fill. In my imagination, that space is supplied by my oldest son. Every time I see something new, or that he would have liked when he was three or four, my brain calls his name and goes, “Hey, look!” When I was in New York, I used to extend my hand to hold his. I wonder about getting him to attend a boarding school close to where I live now, but I doubt the ex would put up with that. It could be a school that places every child in an Ivy League school with a full scholarship and she wouldn’t allow it. The feeling of powerlessness brings on a bout of depression, and nothing makes me feel more powerless than having her take my children away from me by making me walk away, again and again and again.

So I look for a relationship to occupy the empty spaces, because I don’t understand the value of my experience until it’s shared. I need time alone to recover from time spent with people, but while I’m forced to stay alone I’m only half alive. I have an apartment rented, but I just keep staying in someone’s guest bedroom to stave off the isolation.

Jessica and James watched Robert walk stiffly across the terrace and into the house. “I’m really worried about him,” Jessica said. “He’s lost the plot, a bit.”

James said, “She’s only been dead eight months. Give him some time.”

“Ye-es. I don’t know. He seems to have stopped – that is, he’s doing all the things one does, but there’s no heart in him. I don’t think he’s even working on his thesis. He’s just not getting over her.”

James met his wife’s anxious eyes. He smiled. “How long would it take you to get over me?”

She held out her bent hand, and he took it in his. She said, “Dear James. I don’t imagine I would ever get over you.”

“Well, Jessica,” said her husband, “there’s your answer.”

But, I said something about ghosts, and then got distracted. One of the things that makes this book less devastating than its predecessor is the fact that death is not the end. Death is change, but it’s not the end. Existence continues, though you tend to get stuck in your flat. A flat next to Highgate Cemetery is pretty amazing, but you’re still stuck in your flat. And to some extent, the cemetery is the point of the book. It’s like in No Name, when Wilkie Collins over-describes everything, and you start thinking that he’s being paid by a tourist commission. Niffenegger puts in an appeal after the story for us to donate to the upkeep of the cemetery, because it’s full of famous dead people and beautiful monuments and it costs a thousand pounds a day to keep it in good repair, yet it relies almost entirely on donations and (cheap) tour fees. If you’re looking for some organization worthy of your donation, look no farther. You can use their website to give them money, either through check, PayPal, or bequest. There is a lengthy explanation of how to leave money to them in your will, but just sending them money now is much simpler (see the grey box on the right side of the page).

Whether you donate or not, read the book. It’s beautiful and satisfying, but not destructive.